Yet Another Stunning Vaughan Williams Concert Album From the London Symphony Orchestra
The album at the top of the list of best releases of 2021 so far this year is the London Symphony Orchestra‘s shattering recording of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies No. 4 and 6. Both are live: the former from on election night, 2019, the latter performed on March 15, 2020 and as of today the final symphony orchestra recording ever made in the UK. It’s harrowing music, harrowingly performed. Conductor Antonio Pappano and the ensemble were obviously not aware of the specifics of the horrors that would follow, but the sense of trouble lurking in the wings is viscerally chilling.
Perhaps to move away from that crushingly gloomy zeitgeist, the orchestra have just put out a gorgeously lustrous concert recording of the composer’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis – streaming at Spotify – also with Pappano at the helm on that fateful March night. The album is on the short side since this is the only piece on it, but it’s achingly beautiful.
A mystical, distant string atmosphere punctuated by suspenseful staccato bass rises to a lush and increasingly ravishing nocturnal theme, an epic song without words. From this ultraviolet, Holst-like atmosphere, Pappano leads the orchestra down to one of Vaughan Williams’ signature lavish, sweeping, pastoral tableaux, aloft on shivery strings.
Ever so subtly, the composer merges the two themes before Pappano raises the suspense with an emphatic but elegant series of pulses that again shift shape, the orchestra ending on a note that manages to be both warm yet enigmatic: nobody sees it coming. Then again, the future is unwritten: nobody knew that better than Vaughan Williams. Let’s hope his optimism here is an omen.